77 North 6th Street, Brooklyn NY 11211 (b/n Wythe and Berry; map); 718-388-8985; zenkichi.com
Service: Demure and efficient
Setting: A maze of private booths, smooth stones, and bamboo curtains
Cost: $55, eight-course omakase; a la carte, expect to spend $30+/pp
While in many parts of America, "Japanese food" essentially translates to sushi, teriyaki, and not much more, New York is lucky to experience a wider variety of Japanese offerings. Within Manhattan alone, we've got izakayas and robatayaki, ramen joints and even fast-food Japanese curry.
But it's hard to think of anywhere quite like Zenkichi in Williamsburg. The small plates and extensive sake selection may recall an izakaya, but the similarities end there. It's not a lively setting, but a triple-decker labyrinth of a restaurant, where, upon entrance, you'll be spirited away to a curtained-off booth, left to your dining companions.* (Let's call it a good third-date restaurant. You'd better know you enjoy each other's company.)
The slightly illicit appeal of Zenkichi—a meal set to jazz music and not quite discernible murmurs, the sound of diners you'll never set eyes on—would be enough to recommend it. Stepping inside is handing yourself over to disorientation, two hours in semi-seclusion with only a button to summon your waitress. But the menu is just as enticing and improbable—whether you're ordering shark cartilage from the a la carte menu, or, our recommendation, the eight-course omakase. Rotating every six weeks or so, the seasonally driven meal is just $55. It's not just a deal; it's all but insane.
Zenkichi has been around for several years, and recently announced they'd be building a sake bar next door—but we wanted to check in on the progenitor, see how the years had treated it. And sake bar or no sake bar, Zenkichi is a worthy destination.
*Chopstick-feeding a loved one across the table may be moderately more acceptable when you're behind a curtain. But don't abuse that partition any further. You're not as hidden as you think.
The omakase meal generally starts out with Zenkichi's miso soup and a plate of chilled appetizers. A hiramasa tartar was light with the soft nuttiness of sesame oil; a maguro tuna was slightly if not unpleasantly chewy. Cooked through in sweet soy, it echoed the meaty-sweet synthesis of a glazed ham, or beef jerky, in the best way possible. And no complaints about the pair of Kumamoto oysters, one per diner, perfect prelude to a sip of sake.
Like the miso soup, the Zenkichi Salad, though simple, is splendid: greens just clothed in peanut dressing and topped with a soft pile of housemade tofu, a joy to slide your chopsticks through. But even better was the Summer Kakiage, a mixed vegetable tempura—here, a nest of mizuna tangled with kabocha pumpkin, the former peppery, the latter mild, fried crispy and greaseless and yielding an audible crunch. Best dipped in soy dashi, though near perfect on its own.
Saikyo Miso Cod, a dish familiar to anyone who's dined at Nobu, is so deliciously fatty its layers slide off each other at the slightest poke of a chopstick; the sweetness permeates the supple, oily flesh. A roasted honey-soy duck perfectly balanced sweet and salty, grilled scallions adding a soft crunch and char; the thin slices of duck, if not quite tender, were far from chewy. The fluke donburi, fluke sashimi with shiso leaf, is a clean, refreshing end to the savory courses, while the bowl of rice it's riding on will fill up larger stomachs after a long, but essentially light meal. And then, dessert.
All that: each course memorable, if not perfect; fifty-five dollars. The menu rotates every few weeks, the cold plates more often; the omakase is what has us going back to Zenkichi, and back again. But for some of the more adventurous items...
A La Carte
... you'll have to order a la carte. While you'll find several of the omakase dishes on Zenkichi's extensive small plates menu, you'll find additional dishes that, when ordered, will make your waitress raise her eyebrows. "That's an acquired taste," some plates earn. Others: "That's a very acquired taste." We recommend you order a sake and soldier on.
The Bonito Shuto ($5.50)—fish innards pickled and aged for months—is, well, a very acquired taste. It is impossible to overstate the salty fishiness of the tiniest dab. It's as if a bucket of the fisherman's catch, seawater and all, were distilled into a single clump on the end of your chopsticks. It doesn't assault your tastebuds, it annihilates them. And though ordering it with cream cheese (+$2) helps tame the aggression, it mellows the flavor just enough that you somehow experience it more. We'd call it an experience worth having, but only chased with sake, or with a full bowl of rice. Otherwise, you won't be tasting much else.
After that, anything seems tame, including the Same Nankotsu ($5.50), or shark cartilage—thin shreds of a crunch that doesn't quite crunch, in powerful pickled plum sauce. It's the texture that may challenge some, as is the case with the Tako Wasabi ($5.50), wasabi-cured octopus, slithery and firm. Tamer than you'd think it might be after a wasabi bath.
Whether or not you think you like tofu, it's a shame to leave Zenkichi without a bowl of theirs—silken and delicate with a fresh soy flavor, better with a sprinkle of bonito flakes and a drizzle of dashi-soy in the nesting doll of a bowl.
Fried dishes were, almost without exception, remarkable—stomach-steaming potato-mochi balls with a French fry lightness and mochi glutinous chew, a curious but appealing Camembert-shrimp pairing ($8.95). Raw dishes yielded more than simple fish, like a Hiramasa yellowtail sashimi cured in soy with shards of shiso leaf and a single raw quail egg.
Hot dishes varied in execution. The Kobe Beef Tataki ($15.95), with an appealing ginger-soy sauce, was rarer and chewier than we would've liked. We found ourselves preferring the Tsukune Chicken ($9.95), essentially an outsized chicken meatball, served with a soft-poached egg for the dipping.
Prices do start to climb if you're eating a la carte, in the way that small plate meals do: first a nibble, then another, then a second round of sake and dessert and an unexpectedly lengthy check. It's a testament to the strength of Zenkichi's kitchen that it's so easy to keep ordering. Once you've had a few tastes, it's hard not to ring that buzzer for more.
So consider that your justification to splurge on the omakase. It may not be the best Japanese fare in the city. But there's nowhere else we know where eight courses of this caliber—or two hours in a room—will cost you so little.